The Collaborators
Art Connoisseur

Art: John Sonsini and his model, Gabriel, make a fine art pair. A magazine Q&A.

For the past two and a half years, for more hours than he can calculate, Los Angeles painter and photographer John Sonsini has painted and photographed the same model. The muse's name is Gabriel, and he's a 27-year-old Mexican émigré with thick musculature and a demeanor that one critic and curator called "fresh, vulnerable and searching." The pair never go more than one month without working together, and their sessions can last three to five hours, six days per week. Gabriel has moved in next door to Sonsini to make the commute shorter, and to be nearer when inspiration strikes. Sonsini opened his door to Art Connoisseur one day last winter for a tour and to talk about the artist-model relationship.

AC: After all of these hours, how are you able to keep painting Gabriel?

JS: I still find his image unreal. How many times can I paint that foot on the ground and every time I look at it, my feeling is, "Oh, good lord in heaven, that is a human foot, right there, right next to me." I love that.

AC: Your collaboration with Gabriel began with a camera, correct?

JS: Yes, I was photographing Gabriel. We'd done, I think, six sessions at the time and then he was here one day and I was bored with photographing. I was thinking, "Well, what will we do today?" Then, I had an idea. The most absurd things in my mind came together that afternoon. One was painting from a live model, and the other, even more absurd, was to pull out the easel I bought for who-knows-what-reason a year before. So, to paint somebody in that manner felt like I had never painted before. It was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had in my studio.

AC: What makes him such a great model?

JS: He's got an incredible ability to return to the same pose for hours on end and make it appear as if he's never struck that pose before. There's a freshness to it.

AC: Is there one body part, emotion or movement you associate with him?

JS: It's something else, and that's what keeps me ultimately coming back. I couldn't say it's a physical quality. I do dig painting his eyebrows, and Gabriel has a way of standing, carrying himself, that has weightiness to it, that I really like. But it is the way his character comes through that is a quality I'm looking for. I'm not trying to make any "report" about him, psychologically or otherwise. I'm not trying to tell a love tale – none of that stuff is of any interest to me.

AC: After working together for so long, has your relationship evolved?

JS: Working with Gabriel has become such a massive experience. In the first few weeks, we had the conventional experience: "You're the model, I'm the artist, I'm going to paint you." But after a few months of working, I saw that we were becoming partners. Gabriel would say, "If you move that hand, the whole composition will be more interesting." Or, "You've been painting my face for an hour now, you'd better be careful, you're going to over-work the painting." One day I had such frustration with a painting and he said, "Well, I've observed now for a year. The longer you work on a painting, the less it's about me. My advice to you is to work more concentrated and in a shorter period of time." So we did and it worked. He's had phenomenal intuition about this whole experience. The only thing he hasn't done is picked up a brush and worked on a painting.

AC: Let's say Gabriel shows up one day with a new haircut. Is that part of the collaboration?

JS: I want him to do what he wants to do. [For instance], sometimes he won't shave for a few days. He has a heavy bard [and we've started on a big panting that will take two or three weeks], and then he shows up completely clean-shaven and has the face of a 20-year-old. I just let all that be. Because otherwise it stops being what it is, it stops really being what I want it to be.

AC: Gabriel knows you don't paint anybody else?

JS: He's witnessed my commitment to doing this with him, so he's clear that in terms of painting somebody, this is what I'm doing. I had a desire to paint another person, would I? I wouldn't hesitate.

AC: Don't you ever get the urge to work with somebody else?

JS: [Gabriel's] always trying to get me to work with other people. He's constantly saying, {Oh, you've go to photograph this guy," or, "Oh, you should paint him. Don't just paint me." So if I painted somebody else, I'd be shocked if he felt a slight – he'd probably feel relief, is anything. If another model said to Gabriel, "John is going to photograph me, I think Gabriel's response would be, "Oh, amazing great." But if another artist said to me, "I want to photograph Gabriel," it would be like air going out of a mattress."

AC: One last comment. I'm looking at your sofa and your table and chairs, and there's something familiar about them…

JS: I find that the same type of furniture I'm attracted to, this kind of heavy, thick, material is very much like the kind of models I'm attracted to, kind of unassuming, regular guys. It would be very odd for me to [paint] Gabriel sitting on a modern Danish sofa. I think that one of the things about using this furniture that I find around town is I really do think that objects glean onto themselves all sorts of sensations and feelings. So why don't I go out and buy new furniture? It's the same reason I like my shirt: It's been around for a while.

Note: The original print magazine version of this article was published under a psuedonym. Magazine executive editor Jeremy Rosenberg was the writer.